Loading...

California Fire Whisperers 

Facing down region's wildfires by divining where the flames will spread

Wednesday, Dec 5 2007
Comments

LOS ANGELES COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT firefighters and helicopter pilots were on “high-hazard fire staffing” in the early hours of November 24 as the Santa Ana winds picked up. Battalion Chief Tony Marrone of Air Operations was getting some shuteye in the three-bedroom dorm at Pacoima’s Barton Heliport when the alarm bell went off. It was 3:43 a.m. His pager followed.

It was his worst nightmare after the brutal season of charred homes in California: A five-acre brush fire had broken out near Corral Canyon Road in Malibu. Seventy-five firefighters from at least 15 county fire stations were en route to the blaze, which started off a dirt road near a cave — a late-night party hangout. Callers to 911 reporting the fire also said they heard speeding cars and horns blaring at 3:23 a.m.

“There are no power lines to start the fire,” says Marrone, an affable man in his mid-40s. “There is nothing to start a fire there.”

Related Stories

  • Is the First Steelhead Trout in Decades Really Back at Malibu Lagoon? 25

    For the first time in decades, Los Angeles media this week reported, an adult endangered southern steelhead trout was spotted in the Malibu Lagoon channel, an event long dreamed of by environmentalists and fishermen. But the sighting by members of two government agencies and a non-profit foundation has spurred debate...
  • Great Food in Malibu (Yes, Malibu)

    It's a question for the ages: Why isn't there any good food in Malibu? The query is based on a generalization — certainly, there are some good things to eat in Malibu — but the pickings are notoriously slim. (VICE recently dubbed the place "a culinary wasteland.") For such a...
  • Party Nation

    Southern California is often seen by the rest of the nation as a cultural outlier, a relatively new region with traditions that are sometimes at odds with the heartland of America. But when it comes to the ultimate celebration of U.S. nationhood, there are few other places that party as...
  • Picnic Shopping

    The word "picnic," fittingly derived from the French, evokes summer and leisure - and, most crucially, food. A beach picnic may just be the best kind of picnic, especially in L.A., where the options are plentiful. A picnic brings a level of festivity that is difficult to resist, whether on...
  • L.A.'s Best Beaches to Suit Your Mood

    What's the best beach in L.A.? Depends what you're looking for. Los Angeles County is blessed with 75 miles of coast, and beyond that, easy access to even more miles of oceanfront sand in Orange County. That leaves us with great spots for swimming, for surfing, for nature-watching, for cute-surfer...

Within minutes, Marrone was riding shotgun in one of the county’s pricey Bell 412 helicopters toward the Santa Monica Mountains. Marrone — the helicopter coordinator for most of L.A. County’s largest fire disasters — instantly realized that they needed more air power, and quickly dispatched three Black Hawk helicopters, an action taken at night only if lives or property are in jeopardy. The fire, visible 20 miles away, was helped along by 30 mph winds. It had creeped to within a mile of the community of Malibu Bowl, and the neighborhood of El Nido was also in its path.

By the time they controlled the fire two days later, close to 2,000 firefighters, 14 water-dropping helicopters, 13 air tankers and two Super Scoopers had battled the Corral Fire, but not before it burned 4,901 acres, destroyed 53 homes, injured eight firefighters and forced the evacuation of thousands.

“We were getting jostled around,” says Marrone, raising his voice over a loud background noise (it turns out he’s so dedicated to his job, he’ll answer media questions while chowing down on macaroni or trying to take a shower). “It was a bumpy ride.”

He’s an old hand, a guy who understands the personalities of fires, judging wind speed, fire progression, topography, brush thickness — and deciding when to send in an air assault. It’s not an exact science, more of an art. He’ll even resort to the Thomas Brothers Guide if it can be of help. He wears a flashlight around his neck so he can read maps at night — as if he’s trying to figure out what the fire is thinking.

Call him a fire whisperer. In May 2007, Marrone predicted within half an hour the time at which the roaring 40-foot-tall wall of fire on Catalina Island, fueled by winds and brush, would reach Avalon and its 3,200 residents. Hundreds of residents and tourists were loaded onto ferries and whisked to San Pedro, while hundreds of firefighters aided by four helicopters dropped water.

But even as Malibu burned in late November, and Marrone sweated out the hours “eating Motrin,” several miles away another fire whisperer — grounded city of Los Angeles Fire Department pilot Steve Robinson — was getting calls from L.A. County’s fire chiefs asking for an entirely different kind of fire-mapping help. Pronto.

Unlike the county’s low-tech Marrone with his Thomas Brothers Guide and flashlight, the city’s Robinson is a high-tech fire whisperer, working virtually alone to create a system that uses computers, cameras and geographical data to mimic what Marrone does so well with his eyes. Robinson’s dream is to use that high-tech information to instantly share a visual picture of the wildfire with dozens of fire honchos who can make quick decisions on where and how to attack advancing flames.

That morning, however, county fire officials weren’t calling Robinson for his cutting-edge program, admittedly still months from perfection, but for his expertise with the long-proven and widely accepted technique of thermal infrared imaging, which picks out the fire’s “hot spots” so ground crews can put them out before they reignite. And “hot spots” are not just a few embers burning — they are invisible, superheated brushy areas near the ground that can feed an entirely new fire after eluding detection, sometimes days afterward.

ROBINSON’S rather large office, in a hard-to-find unmarked building at the city’s Air Ops next to Van Nuys Airport, is filled with equipment: gargantuan printers, a computer, a television and high-tech gadgetry. A topographical map of the Corral Fire in Malibu hangs on Robinson’s office wall. The huge red blob in the center shows the area where the fire burned. Next to his computer is an award for special achievement in geographical information systems technology, but the paperweight is turned upside down until a guest asks him what it is.

Robinson wears a beige pilot’s jumpsuit even though he is no longer a pilot — a horrible helicopter crash 10 years ago made sure of that. Robinson was piloting a Bell 412 helicopter, rushing a 12-year-old car accident victim to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, when the chopper’s tail rotor, without warning, broke off over the Hollywood Hills. His chopper clipped tall fir trees before slamming into a patch of grass near a wealthy area in Los Feliz, killing four people: the injured girl, a “helitac” flight-crew member and two paramedics.

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets

Slideshows

  • 21st Annual Classic Cars "Cruise Night" in Glendale
    On Saturday, spectators of all ages were out in multitudes on a beautiful summer night in Glendale to celebrate the 21st annual Cruise Night. Brand Boulevard, one of the main streets through downtown Glendale, was closed to traffic and lined with over 250 classic, pre-1979 cars. There was plenty of food to be had and many of the businesses on Brand stayed open late for the festivities The evening ended with fireworks and a 50th anniversary concert from The Kingsmen, who performed their ultimate party hit, "Louie, Louie." All photos by Jared Cowan.
  • The World Cup Celebrated And Mourned By Angelenos
    The World Cup has taken Los Angeles by storm. With viewings beginning at 9 a.m., soccer fans have congregated at some of the best bars in the city including The Village Idiot, Goal, The Parlour on Melrose, Big Wang's and more. Whether they're cheering for their native country, favorite players or mourning the USA's loss, Angelenos have paid close attention to the Cup, showing that soccer is becoming more than a fad. All photos by Daniel Kohn.
  • La Brea Tar Pits "Pit 91" Re-Opening
    Starting June 28th, The Page Museum once again proudly unveils the museum's Observation Pit, which originally opened in 1952 but has spent most of the last half century closed. Now visitors can get an up-close look at Pit 91, which is currently under excavation. The La Brea Tar Pits, home of the Page Museum, is one of the world's most famous ice age fossil locations, known for range of fossils from saber-toothed cats and mammoths to microscopic plants, seeds and insects. The new "Excavator Tour" is free with museum admission if purchased online at tarpits.org . All photos by Nanette Gonzales.